Debbie Allen was first introduced to the public in the movie and TV series “Fame.” She went onto a storied career as an actress, director and producer. On the ABC hit drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” she fills all three roles. She’s also been nominated for more than 20 Emmys and won three.
But Allen never left her first love: dance. The Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Netflix recently released a documentary about the academy and their annual production of “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.” The documentary is called “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.”
“The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” follows a little girl named Kara, who is led by three rats across different lands such as Toyland and Fairyland, much like the original “Nutcracker” production. But Allen tells KCRW a big difference: Her production emphasizes the children in the show in the form of a musical comedy.
Due to the pandemic, DADA transitioned into a virtual dance studio with classes via Zoom. Since March 17, Allen has hosted a live dance class on Instagram every Wednesday and Saturday, and students can learn all sorts of styles.
“It's not just ballet. It's far from that. There is hip-hop. There is flamenco. There is salsa. There is Bollywood. Children come in and see this wonderful diversity of music and dance styles, and those beautiful costumes, and everybody can see a reflection of themselves on that stage,” Allen says.
Allen says many DADA students ended up finding success on Broadway and in Hollywood. That includes Kylie Jefferson, the youngest person admitted to DADA. She’s featured in “Dance Dreams” and also stars in “ Tiny Pretty Things ,” a new Netflix show about the cutthroat world of ballet dancing.
“What was hard was understanding that the craft that chose me was not created in my image. And that was a really hard realization. But at the same time, you know, this craft chose me. I have no choice but to do it,” Jefferson says in “Dance Dreams.”
According to Allen, many Black dancers share Jefferson’s experiences in the industry.
“I think anyone that watches ‘Dance Dreams,’ they're going to see the story of many children, my story, and Kylie Jefferson, who is very candid about the challenges that she has been facing in the dance world by virtue of being Black,” Allen says. “When [Jefferson] was in production, she would call and tell me that she was having problems, that they didn't understand her hair.”
The origins of DADA
Allen says the academy was inspired by one of her daughters, who attended the Kirov Academy of Washington D.C. After studying there for three years, Allen says her daughter was insulted by a teacher at Kirov.
“She needed to be in a place where she was going to be loved and nurtured, and not criticized for being Black. The teacher in class, you can criticize or you can tell her, ‘Your legs look bad, do this, do that.’ But you can't say to her, ‘You'll never be a dancer.”
According to Allen, the teacher later apologized to her daughter in front of the whole school.
Growing up as a Black dancer
Allen says she has faced a lot of adversity as a Black woman. That includes being unable to attend the Houston Ballet.
“They weren't accepting Black kids. I was dealing with straight up racial segregation. I couldn't go to ballet class. I couldn't go to restaurants. We couldn't go to movie theaters. We could only go to the amusement park one day a year — on Juneteenth,” Allen says.
She later studied under Madame Tatiana Semenova, a Russian dancer and the founding director of the Houston Ballet Academy.
“[She] was amazing and tough as nails. She used to wear us out. She would give us money if we bled through our shoes in pointe class. ‘You did good today! You get $1.’”
Allen notes Semenova’s tough nature pushed her to work harder.
“If you didn't have yourself perfect, you couldn't even take class. She prepared us for the world to be able to go in a world that is hard, that had strict rules. And in the middle of that you would find your own path.”
But despite the tough love at school, Allen says her mom was the source of inspiration for her and her siblings.
“In our family, the success of one is the success of all. My mom really put it in our heads that we had no limitations, and that we could do anything, and that we must do something.”
The future of dance amid COVID
Allen says that due to pandemic constraints, the dance world has been connected internationally via the internet.
“If the vaccine warps in tomorrow and all the schools were open, I would be remiss to leave those hundreds that come to me every week from Australia and Germany and Paris and the Middle East and China, '' Allen says. “It’s pretty amazing. I think I’ll have to continue those classes.”
She says dance is a spiritual experience that helps people not only move, but helps them overcome fears and find joy.
“We're all physicists. We're dancing through time and space. Timing, space, energy, light, balance, controlled stillness movement, we are measuring all of that within our own sphere. … Dance is the most natural art form in the world, and everybody should and can do it.”